Saturday, October 31, 2020

From Dusk Till Dawn

Tone. Tone is so important, especially in horror movies. Yesterday's review of Drag Me to Hell gave the impression that the movie was so over-the-top cartoonish that it broke the comedy ceiling. Now, here's an example of one that tries to do the same thing, but fails at it...unless you're of a certain mind. Funny, that.

From Dusk Till Dawn (Robert Rodriguez, 1996) Quentin Tarantino had just won an Oscar for co-writing Pulp Fiction, and followed it up by writing this mocking over-the-top vampire movie. He grabbed Desperado director Rodriguez to direct it (so he could concentrate on his acting—and he's not bad here), starting a career-long association, and George Clooney used it to re-start his movie career while still in his "E.R." bobblehead days, back before he decided he'd take his movie choices seriously.

He wasn't doing that here. This one's a black-crested lark of comic violence and obscene intentions, a nihilistic exploration of...well, absolutely nothing. It's what Rodriguez and Tarantino do at their worst—make crap they like, but is so "inside" as to be a private joke for their own giggling pleasure.
The Gecko brothers (Clooney, Tarantino) are nihilistic criminals trying to make their way over the Mexican border. After an incendiary one-stop robbery, they kidnap a family, the Fullers (Harvey Keitel, Juliette Lewis, Ernest Liu), to smuggle them across the border where they end up at the infernal strip-club, The Titty Twister, which holds a deep dark secret once the sun goes down—it's run and jobbed by vampires. Yup, an 24 hour-a-day joint filled with blood-suckers.  But, for some reason, opening up the saloon doors doesn't eliminate the staff and add a new layer of dust to the floor. Nor would the nightly slaughter of customers fail to attract a new clientele.

Odd, that.
But, it does provide a lot of bulbous make-up effects, a lot of ultra-squishy violence done to living and dead alike, and appearances by B-movie stalwarts Fred Williamson, Cheech Marin, and make-up maven Tom Savini—who didn't do any of the make-up. By the end, there are so many holes in people that it almost outnumbers the holes in the plot (QT's Richard Gecko sustains an early gunshot clean through his hand—you can see through it—and yet he keeps using that hand in the film, even though the bones in his palm have been blasted through, which is a nice trick—howdy dood that?). Richard's a creepy sleezoid, while Clooney's Seth Gecko is just a cocky little bastardIt must have felt good to get that out of his system, but the results are so thoroughly hackneyed and cock-eyed and cartoonishly vile that one has to have a pretty bad day kicking puppies to get any real enjoyment out of it. A highlight is Salma Hayek's stripper performancewhere she doesn't strip.
Fortunately, nearly everyone in the movie has gone on to better things.  

So should you.

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Drag Me to Hell

Will "Hallowe'en Month" ever end? Sadly, not until Sunday. "The Horror...The Horror"

This was written at the time of the film's release.

"Losing Your Buttons & Getting Your Goat"
"Do You Want Flies With That?" 

Something's been missing from horror movies since the 1970's—I'm talking about the majority of the teen-slasher movies and the current trend of torture porn—there's no sense of humor. Oh, there's some sadistic glee on the part of the film-makers when planning their little vivisections, but it's rarely communicated, so concerned are they with getting the technical aspects of their horror shows right. I mean, God forbid that you should laugh at it. Horrors! Not Sam Raimi. He's still nostalgic for the bad old days when horror movies were fun, and harkens back to the past with the first frames of Drag Me To Hell*Raimi uses the old pre-CGI "Universal" film logo to start the film (as well as the "Tour Universal Studio" card at the end...and—what's this?—there are even needless "cigarette burns" in the upper right of the frame**) and deliriously overplays every gambit for chuckles as well as shocks—he is, after all, the man who created the hilarious "Evil Dead" movies before getting caught in the "Spiderman" web. 

Horror movies need to reflect their times and fears (atomic monsters in the 50's, serial killers in the 70's) and so the anti-heroine of Drag Me to Hell is ambitious loan officer Christine Brown (Alison Lohman). Christine is watching her weight, watching her budget and pining for a hotly contested assistant manager position. In a display to her boss of "making the tough decisions," she refuses the late extension on the mortgage of gypsy woman Mrs. Ganush (Lorna Raver in a performance that can best be described as "gooey"), who then proceeds to attach the curse of the "Lamia" — "the black goat" — on Christine. Like every curse, there are rules. Lots of them. For three days, she will be antagonized by the goat (making full use of shock-cuts, wire-tricks, CGI and surround creaking), and on the fourth day, she will literally be dragged to Hell. Unless...and thereby hangs the movie. Who knew curses had such fine print? It's as bad as...well, getting a bank loan, especially these days. Talk about your curses...
The fun is in how Raimi (in collaboration with his brother Ivan) escalates the may-hem to extremes both in grossness and cartooniness. This could be an out and out comedy of the "Incredible Mess" variety were it not for the furrowed brows on everyone's forehead. Christine should be putting her affairs in order, if the curse were not so concerned with scattering them in the most extreme ways. Her promotion is put into question with the visions that cause her to freak out at her staid job (her boss is played by wormy David Paymer), and a nose bleed turns into projectile fountaining. Eyes pop out of heads. There's an extended ker-fluffle at a funeral (yes, it goes there...and beyond), and at a dinner with her boyfriend's (Justin Long, the "Mac" guy in those commercials) upperly-crusty parents. She doesn't make a good first impression. It would be tragic if it weren't so funny; Christine's happily engineered life is just fragile enough to fall like a line of accessorized domino's. And extreme? Christine may be the only creature on Earth—besides Wile E. Coyote—that has a suspended anvil in their storage shed! It's all pretty delirious, and Alison Lohman wins this year's "Winslet Award"*** for being jerked around, repeatedly doused, dunked, sprayed and goobered upon, and then having to play a scene with a goat—there's a lovely middle distance shot of actress and goat appraising each other, warily. 
Drag Me To Hell is inventive, fun, and a good unsophisticated time at the movies. It's a fine exception to a genre that in recent years has done nothing but bore me to Hell.

* It was fun to even ask for a ticket: "Drag Me to Hell, Please!" The kid in the booth charitably laughed. 

** I don't think this technical nostalgia extended to the exclusion of the 1-frame anti-piracy "liver spots" that infect movies these days, but then the film is dark and spooky, so I may have just missed them. 

*** For "pluckiest actress" after Kate of Winslet, who had to act in a sinking ship AND take direction from James Cameron.

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

The Wolfman (2010)

It's still October—Hallowe'en month. And things are getting hairier as we head for November. ("No-shave November").

"Clap-Trap for The Wolfman"

Benicio Del Toro's dream project of a, make that period remake of The Wolf Man (1941) has had more transformations than a month with two full moons! There have been two directors, settling on Joe Johnston, a litter of writers and re-writers, two scores—one by Danny Elfman, the other by Paul Haslinger, then reverting back to the Elfman score—a pack of editors, including the legendary Walter Murch, all trying to beat this one into shape. Whether this is studio interference or the "creative differences" that emerges when the star is The Big Dog is not known, but there've been a lot of changes on The Wolfmansome of them quite hairy.*

You can tighten up the editing, change the score,
even bleed the color out of the thing, but if the script is mangey, no amount of post-production wizardry can save it. I'd say something about "lipstick on a pig" but that would be the wrong genus, and I'd probably get a nasty tweet from Alaska for it (but, I digress). Movie-making, as in lycanthropy, requires an engaging source from which a fiendish entertainment can spring.
Let's start with the curse. I've always loved the doggerel poem ** (written by 1941's scripter Curt Siodmak) that describes the werewolf mark. It contains the essence of Horror-tragedy. Yes, we like to see the fur flying and the blood spatters on the wall, but it's all just gristle for the grinder unless it evokes empathy, inspires sympathy and not merely psychopathy. I'm not saying that every villager who has his heart (and one noticeable liver) stolen by the werewolf should have a back-story, but we could at least set up a situation where their hasty plans to hide goes for naught, which would inspire a cruel comedy, which is tragedy's keister-kicking cousin. Nope, the film-makers are too busy with the stop-watch trying to elevate the body-count per minute than to think about The Wolfman's victims.
And that includes the beast, himself.
Because at the beating, pulsing heart of that curse lies the secret. Any man (or woman, for all of that ***) who is pure of heart...can become a wolf. And that's the tragedy, and the horror, of this particular story. And Benicio Del Toro's Lawrence Talbot, famous American touring actor (eh?), has little going for him to evoke the script, or Del Toro's performance. The actor (the real one, not the film one) may love the story, and the movie may have been constructed around him, but the performance is so internal as to be inscrutable—a surprise, as Del Toro is one actor you can count on to do something interesting...even his roles. 
Sure, he grunts and groans and strains and bugs his eyes suitably in the transformations, but as Larry Talbot—actor—all he does is hang around, looking miserable, and some of his line readings are merely flat. Yes, he's sad—he is, after all, in mourning for his brother, killed in a vicious wolf attack—but Del Toro doesn't do anything with it, and it's a plum opportunity to, at least, emote—as in, Talbot's an actor, he's supposed to be grieving, and some actors might seize on that for material, research...something?
But, that's not the aim of the scripters (Andrew Kevin Walker and David Self). Here, they go back to their Freud texts, and the curse becomes a familial one. Dear old dad (Anthony Hopkins, gleefully playing a sadist) is the cause of all of Larry's problems and "the sins of the father, blah, blah, blah." For this Larry Talbot, his fate is not so much a Curse as a Destiny.**** And you know how things go with Destinythe Ending is telegraphed a mile away. Things go as planned. The End.
Destiny is the Curse of the modern Movie-goer, not just the cost of the ticket (or 3-D head-aches).
So, as a movie, this dog don't hunt. Oh, the sets are nicely gloomy, with carefully applied wisps of cob-webs in corners and all the floor-boards creak ominously (I mean, ALL the floor-boards creak, and the stuffed animal-heads growl—editor Murch started out as the One True Sound Designer, but this is sonically gilding the lily). The effects are bloody-good, the wolf-turnings snap, crackle and pop, and the village square has the cozy compactness, familiar of the Universal back-lot. Emily Blunt is appropriately tremulous, Hopkins tries desperately to make his evil part fun—he calls son Larry "pup" at one point—but the film was pre-ordained to be uninvolving. That was its curse by taking the tragedy out of the horror and the melodrama out of the actor.

Those howls you hear in the night are from the Hollywood Hills.

* Rick Baker, the make-up genius who's worked on so many great projects over the years, did the 2010 Wolfman design, basing it on Jack Pierce's legendary work for the 1941 film, and joked "You don't have to do much to turn Benicio into a Wolfman."

*** Alan Moore, the writer of "Watchmen" and "V for Vendetta," bless his tilted little mind, also wrote a werewolf story when he was exploring the roots of the horror genre while writing "Swamp Thing." In it, a woman became a marauding werewolf not on the monthly lunar cycle, but on her once-a-month menstrual cycle. Moore's title for it? "The Curse." Moore is very, very good.

**** Modern script-writers are so hung up with pre-ordained Fates the argument by the Religious Right that Hollywood is anti-God goes up in a puff of Intelligent Design. You can't have a Destiny without some Omniscient Travel Agent planning the itinerary.

Sunday, October 25, 2020

Don't Make a Scene: The Silence of the Lambs

The Story: The Silence of the Lambs is the only horror film to win the Academy award for Best Picture. Despite its horrific storyline, the quality of the film in every aspect was too good, too accomplished to ignore. I have personal stories of folks who refused...absolutely see it, and when they did, gushed about the quality of what they'd seen.

It's a grisly story, the stuff of nightmares. But, the talent in front and behind the camera is stunning and at the top of their respective games. Yes, Silence...won Best Picture, but also, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Direction, and Best Writing for a Screenplay Based on Previously Published Material. 

A portion of Ted Tally's Oscar-winning screenplay is below, but you'll notice it's different from what is presented on-screen. Tally chose to illustrate Starling's flashback story with sequences that showed what she was talking about. Director Jonathan Demme chose, instead, to just shows his startling, invasive, and immersive close-ups (on a full theater-screen, the effect is chilling), probably because he knew the talent that he had to utilize, Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins. He probably thought that he couldn't improve on the power of the sequence by cutting away in distraction.

The sequence is book-ended by agitated activity—pacing and struggle revolving around the calm, demented center of Lecter, but once the tale of Foster's childhood starts rolling, everything stills...except for a slow, steely-push-in with the cameras to frame the faces of the two people locked in the telling of the tale...they're facing each other, but like so much of The Silence of the Lambs, they're also staring at us, the audience, making us part of the conversation— witnesses, accomplices, by-standers—as we learn just what the title of the movie means, and why it is a desire that might never be realized or satisfied. The movie leaves us with no peace. No silence. 

Yes, the goal of the movie—what attracted Foster to the movie is the concept of a victimized woman being saved by another woman—may be accomplished, but it brings no peace. No solace. Because wolves have been released. And the screaming will continue.

The Set-Up: FBI trainee Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) has been set up to fail by her male masters at the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Tracking a serial killer they've dubbed "Buffalo Bill"—for his practice of skinning his victims—she has been pushed into using a highly unusual resource—the imprisoned killer Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), a brilliant psychologist known for eating his victims. The trail has turned cold, but "Bill" has struck again, this time the missing woman is the daughter of a member of the U.S. Senate. Lecter begins playing the FBI against the head of his prison Dr. Frederick Chilton (Anthony Heald) for information about the missing girl. What he wants from Chilton is a transfer; what he wants from Starling is personal information. Starling makes one last visit to Lecter (without Chilton's knowledge) to try to find out what Lecter knows. Time is running out...tick-tock.


Excisions from the script have been marked with a "strikethrough" and replaced with what was filmed.

Pembry, at a desk by the door, looks up from examining the unrolled pile of Dr. Lecter's drawings. 
:BOYLE:  You know the rules, ma'am? 

CLARICE: Yes, Lieutenant Boyle Officer Pembry. I've questioned him before. 

He waves her on her way, but retains the drawings for now.
BOYLE: Go ahead. 

MOVING ANGLE - WITH CLARICE as she crosses the big, spare, white octagonal room.
A massive, temporary iron cage has been installed; Officer Boyle sits facing its barred door. 
He rises, nods, moving away to allow her privacy. 

INSIDE THE CAGE: a cot and a small table, each bolted to the floor, and a flimsy paper screen, hiding a toilet. 
Dr. Lecter sits at the table, his back to her, studying the Buffalo Bill case file.
He now wears a green prison jumpsuit. 
A small cassette player is chained to the steel table. 

DR. LECTER (without turning):  Good afternoon, Clarice. 

She stops at a striped police barricade, before his bars. 
CLARICE: I thought you might want your drawings back... 
CLARICE: Just until you get your view. 

DR. LECTER:  How very thoughtful... 
DR. LECTER: Or did Crawford send you here for one last wheedle -
Dr. LECTER  ...before you're both booted off the case? 

CLARICE: Nobody sent me. I came on my own. No, I came because I wanted to. 

He spins in his swivel chair, stops neatly. A coy smile. 

DR. LECTER People will say we're in love. 
DR. LECTER: "Anthrax Island." That was an especially nice touch, Clarice. 
DR. LECTER Yeah...
Dr. LECTER That was good. Pity you tried to fool me, isn't it? Pity for poor Catherine. Tick-tock-tick-tock-tick-tock... 

He spins again in his chair, playfully. 

MOVING ANGLE - FAVORING CLARICE as she circles the cage, trying to keep his face in sight.
CLARICE: Your anagrams are showing, doctor. 
CLARICE: Louis Friend? Iron-sulfide. Better known as "fool's gold?" 
DR. LECTER: Oh, Clarice, you're problem is you need to get more fun out of life.
CLARICE: Dr. Lecter, you find out everything. You couldn't have talked with this "William Rubin", even once, and come out knowing so little about him... You made him up, didn't you? 
DR. LECTER Clarice... you're hardly in a position to accuse me of lying. 

CLARICE: I think you were telling me the truth in Baltimore, sir - or starting to. Tell me the rest now. Please continue now.

DR. LECTER:  I've studied read the case file, have you...? 
DR. LECTER: Everything you need to find him is right in these pages. Whatever his name is. 

CLARICE: Then tell me how. 

DR. LECTER:  First principles, Clarice. 
DR. LECTER: Simplicity. Read Marcus Aurelius. Of each particular thing, ask: What is it, in itself, what is its nature...? What does he do, this man you seek? 

CLARICE: He kills w- 

DR. LECTER (sharply, as he stops):  No! 
DR. LECTER: That's incidental. 

CLOSE ANGLE - TWO SHOT as he rises, pained by her ignorance, and crosses to the bars. 
DR. LECTER:  What is the first and principal thing he does, 
DR. LECTER: ...what need does he serve by killing? 

CLARICE: Anger, social resentment, sexual frus- 

DR. LECTER: He covets. 
DR. LECTER: That's his nature. 
DR. LECTER: And how do we begin to covet, Clarice? 
DR. LECTER: Do we seek out things to covet? Make an effort to answer now. 

CLARICE: No. We just - 
DR. LECTER:  No. Precisely. We begin by coveting what we see every day. Don't you feel eyes moving over your body, Clarice? I hardly see how you couldn't. 
DR. LECTER: And don't your eyes move over the things you want? 

CLARICE: All right, yes. Then tell me how - 

DR. LECTER:  No. It's your turn to tell me, Clarice. You don't have any more vacations to sell, on Anthrax Island
DR. LECTER: Why did you run away from that ranch? 

CLARICE: Dr. Lecter, when there's time I'll - Doctor, we don't have any time for this now... 

DR. LECTER:  But, we don't reckon time the same way, do we, 
DR. LECTER: ...Clarice? This is all the time you'll ever have. 

CLARICE: Later, listen, now please listen to me, we only five...I'll 

DR. LECTER: No! I will 
DR. LECTER: After your father's murder, 
DR. LECTER: were orphaned. You were ten years old. You went to live with cousins, on a sheep and horse ranch in Montana. And - ? 

CLARICE: And - one morning I just - ran away... 

She turns from him. He presses closer, gripping the bars. 
DR. LECTER:  Not "just," Clarice. What set you off? You started what time? 

CLARICE: Early. Still dark. 

DR. LECTER:  Then something woke you, didn't it? What? Did you Was it a dream...? What was it? 

IN FLASHBACK: The 10-year old Clarice sits up abruptly in her bed, frightened. She is in a Montana ranch house; it almost dawn. Strange, fearful shadows on her ceiling and walls... a window, partly fogged by the cold; eerie brightness outside. 
CLARICE (V.O.) I heard a strange noise sound... 

DR. LECTER (V.O.) What was it? 

THE CHILD RISES: crosses to the window in her nightgown, rubs the glass. 
CLARICE (V.O.) I didn't know. I went to look... 
HIGH ANGLES (2ND STORY) - THE CHILD'S POV Shadowy men, ranch hands, are moving in and out of a nearby barn, carrying mysterious bundles. The mens' breath is steaming... A refrigerated truck idles nearby, its engine adding more steam. A strange, almost surrealistic scene... 
CLARICE (V.O.) Screaming! Some kind of - It was...screaming. Some kind of screaming. Like a child's voice... 

THE LITTLE GIRL: is terrified; she covers her ears. 
DR. LECTER (V.O.) What did you do? 

CLARICE (V.O.) Got dressed without turning on the light. I went downstairs... outside... 

THE LITTLE GIRL: in her winter coat, slips noiselessly towards the open barn door. She ducks into the shadows to avoid a ranch hand, who passes her with a squirming bundle of some kind. He goes into the barn, and she edges after him reluctantly. 
CLARICE (V.O.) I crept up to the barn... I was so scared to look inside - but I had to... 

THE LITTLE GIRL'S POV as the open doorway LOOMS CLOSER... Bright lights inside, straw bales, the edges of stalls, then moving figures... 
DR. LECTER (V.O.) And what did you see, Clarice? What did you see?

A SQUIRMING LAMB is held down on a table by two ranch hands. 
CLARICE (V.O.) Lambs. 
CLARICE: The lambs were screaming... 
A third cowboy stretches out the lamb's neck, raises a bloody knife. Just as he's about to slice its throat - 
BACK TO THE ADULT CLARICE staring into the distance, shaken, still trembling from the child's shock. We see Dr. Lecter, over her shoulder, studying her intently.
DR. LECTER:  They were slaughtering the spring lambs? 
CLARICE: Yes...! And they were screaming. 

DR. LECTER:  So And you ran away... 
CLARICE: No. First I tried to free them... I opened the gate of their pen - but they wouldn't run. They just stood there, confused. They wouldn't run... 

DR. LECTER:  But you could. And you did, didn't you?. 
CLARICE: Yes. I took one lamb. And I ran away, as fast as I could... 
IN FLASHBACK: a vast Montana plain, and crossing this, a tiny figure - the little Clarice, holding a lamb in her arms. 
DR. LECTER (V.O.) Where were you going, Clarice? 
CLARICE (V.O.) I don't know. I had no food or water. It was very cold. Very cold. 
CLARICE: I thought - if I can even save just one... but he got was so heavy. 
CLARICE: So heavy... 

The tiny figure stops, and after a few moments sinks to the ground, hunched over in dispair. 
CLARICE (V.O.) I didn't get more than a few miles before the sheriff's car picked me up found me
CLARICE:  The rancher was so angry he sent me to live at the Lutheran orphanage in Bozeman. I never saw the ranch again... 

DR. LECTER (V.O.) But what became of your lamb? (no response) Clarice...? 
CLARICE: They killed him.
BACK TO SCENE: as the adult Clarice turns, staring into his feverish eyes. She shakes her head, unwilling - or unable - to say more. 
DR. LECTER:  You still wake up sometimes, don't you? 
DR. LECTER: Wake up in the dark, and hear the screaming of the lambs. with the lambs screaming

CLARICE: Yes... 

DR. LECTER:  Do And you think if you saved poor Catherine, you could make them stop, don't you...? Do you think, if Catherine lives, you won't wake up in the dark, ever again, to the awful screaming of the lambs? Do you...

CLARICE: Yes! I don't know...! 
CLARICE: I don't know. 

DR. LECTER (a pause; then, oddly at peace) Thank you, Clarice. Thank you..  
CLARICE: (a whisper) Tell me his name, Dr. Lecter. 

DR. LECTER:  Dr. Chilton, I presume... 
DR. LECTER: I believe you know each other? 

NEW ANGLE: as Clarice turns, startled, and the fuming Chilton seizes her elbow. Pembry and Boyle are beside him, looking grim. 
CHILTON: Out. Okayyy. 
PEMBRY: We found her.
CHILTON: Let's go.
CLARICE: It's your turn, Doctor...
CLARICE: Tell me his name. 

PEMBRY: Sorry, ma'a m - we've got orders to have you put on a plane. Clarice struggles, pulling free of them for a moment.
PEMBY: C'mon now... 
DR. LECTER:  Brave Clarice. 
DR. LECTER: Will you will let me know if ever the lambs stop screaming, won't you?
CLARICE: Tell me his name, doctor! 

CLARICE: (moving closer to the bars) Yes. I'll tell you. 
DR. LECTER: Promise...? (she nods. He smiles) Clarice!
DR. LECTER: Then why not take your case file? I won't be needing it anymore

He holds out the file, arm extended between the bars. 
She hesitates, then reaches to take it. 

VERY CLOSE ANGLE - SLOW MOTION as the exchange is made, his index finger touches her hand, and lingers there, just for a moment. 

DR. LECTER'S EYES widen, crackling at this touch, like sparks in a cave. 
DR. LECTER:  Good-bye, Clarice. 

CLARICE: hugging the case file to her chest, stares back at him as the men crowd in on her, pushing her away. 
HER POV - MOVING as Dr. Lecter, head cocked in a smile, slowly recedes...

The Silence of the Lambs

Words by Ted Tally

Pictures by Tak Fujimoto and Jonathan Demme

The Silence of the Lambs is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from M-G-M Home Video and the Criterion Collection.